December 26, 2010 12:29:00 AM
Shawn Gates and Ronnie Sciple know how to make their numbers count.
Even though Gates and Sciple coached different brands of football this season, each coach achieved an impressive degree of success with limited rosters.
Both coaches spent good portions of the 2010 season with less than 20 players dressed out and ready to go.
The lack of numbers didn''t stop the Immanuel Christian and Central Academy football teams from having seasons to remember.
Gates guided Immanuel Christian to its first 11-man playoff game, while Sciple overcame injuries and illnesses to direct the Vikings to the Mississippi Association of Independent Schools Eight-Man title game against Kemper Academy.
For their accomplishments, Gates and Sciple are The Dispatch Small School All-Area Football Team co-Coaches of the Year.
"I enjoyed every moment of it," said Gates, who went 1-9 in his first season as head coach at Immanuel Christian in 2009. "For Immanuel to go to the playoffs in 11-man and to win our first 11-man game against Houlka, we realized right then and there we could do this. We earned our spot in the playoffs."
Immanuel Christian (6-6) saw its playoff run end in the first round with a loss to Tri-County. Assistant coach Bubba Davis joked that the Rams played two games that night, one against Tri-County''s first team and the second, in the second half, against Tri-County''s second team.
Gates wishes the Rams would have had running back Norris Harris for the playoff game. Harris suffered a knee injury in the team''s victory against New Site in its regular-season finale. The Rams also played without senior Justin James, and dressed out only 13 or 14 players against Tri-County.
"We went into that game with 13 people," Gates said. "I give our coaches an A-plus and our players an A-plus. We did what we needed to do to set the tone for next year."
Gates graduated from Heritage Academy in 2004. He played football and worked as a student coach at East Mississippi Community College in 2004-05. He went on to play football at North Greenville University before coming back home to work as an assistant coach at Heritage Academy in 2007.
The following year, Gates worked as an assistant coach with the Arena Football League''s Mississippi Mudcats and as an assistant football coach at Immanuel Christian.
In 2009, he had earned a spot in the training camp of the AFL''s Georgia Force before the league suspended its season. That move set the stage for Gates to move into coaching full time.
At that point, he said he had to make a decision between being a football player or a boxer or kick-boxer, but opted to go into coaching.
"I really enjoyed coaching and I thought this is what I would like to do," Gates said. "I have been playing ball all my life and I always got along with every player. I have never had a problem with an athlete."
Gates worked as defensive coordinator at Immanuel Christian before then coach Billy Thomas, who also was working as the school''s basketball and track and field coach, opted to step away from football. Gates is glad Thomas and Bob Williford, who helps lead the school, gave him the opportunity to be head football coach.
Gates said he has learned a lot from Thomas, former karate instructor Oliver Miller, and former EMCC coach Roger Carr. He said he uses pieces of what he has seen from those men and incorporates them into a laid-back approach.
"You have to have confidence in yourself if you want to get it," Gates said. "You can never give up. You always have to get back up and show no fear. You always have to stand tough and to show a positive attitude."
Gates will put that mind-set to the test next season when Immanuel Christian moves from Class A to Class 2A. He knows it will be a challenge competing against schools like Oak Hill Academy, Winston Academy, and Leake Academy, but Gates knows the 2010 season will be a useful building block.
"The kids got in the weight room, ran hard, and listened better this year and things worked out a whole lot better for us," Gates said of 2010. "We have to get into the weight room starting now. They know moving up to a tougher division we have to work hard."
Sciple''s Vikings worked hard to overcome injuries to offensive linemen early in the season. Led by a strong ground game, Central Academy rolled through opponents, losing only to Kemper Academy in the regular season and in the Eight-Man title game.
Despite the setbacks, Sciple praised his players for overcoming the odds.
"We had a great group of kids," said Sciple, who was in his third season as head coach. "They did whatever you asked. It helps to have a great group of kids."
Sciple''s son, Will, was hit with a rare illness that affected the lining of stomach late in the season. As a result, Will was less than 100 percent for the rematch against Kemper Academy, a 56-18 loss. The final score didn''t reflect the closeness of the game. Central Academy, which lost to Kemper Academy 54-0 in the regular season, trailed 16-12 late in the third quarter before Kemper Academy scored 32 in the fourth quarter to pull away.
Sciple said he used his experience and relationships with his players to build toughness and to teach the game. He said players typically visited his house Saturday night or on Sunday to watch game film. The viewings gave Sciple chances to highlight areas in a smaller setting that he felt allowed the players to grasp concepts quicker.
"The thing about it is they learned to watch film to pick up little things," Sciple said. "I was able to do more correcting in a one-on-one setting instead of with a big group."
Sciple said the players who watched film grew to feel more comfortable around him and knew what to expect. It wasn''t unusual, he said, for him to have occasional outbursts where he got onto the players, but they knew he wasn''t acting in a mean-spirited way and was only trying to get them to play to the best of their abilities.
"They learned to put up with me and to listen more," Sciple said.
Even though his son is graduating at the end of this schools year, Sciple anticipates returning to coach another season at the school. He said he is looking forward to continuing his brand of running football with a new group of players.
"It was very satisfying. I probably had more fun this year," Sciple said. "We had a good group of kids. I think I had this group in the fifth and the sixth grade. I had a blast."
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.